Archive of category "Uncategorized"

by Cecil Scheib

This week, Whitson Gordon at published an interesting article about troubleshooting router woes.

I actually really like Lifehacker!

While perhaps technically accurate from a narrow point of view, I had a bone to pick about the larger ecological context of his recommendation and dashed off the email below.
Dear Mr. Whitson,

Thank you for the lively and informative article about router woes. I came across it while troubleshooting some router issues and found it helpful.

I do have a comment about one part of the article, when you are describing troubleshooting options for router connection issues:
“If your modem is a modem/router combo, you won’t be able to perform this [troubleshooting] step (we recommend having a separate modem and router for just this reason).”

As an energy geek, I’d like to point out that modem/router combos use about the same power than separate units (in fact, often less). Since these are 24/7 units, this recommendation effectively doubles the power requirement of a home connection.

With ~90,000,000 broadband subscribers and assuming an average 10W of power consumption per device, I get the following:

90,000,000 connections X 10W x 1MW/1,000,000W = 900MW.

So, the difference between everyone having a single device and everyone having separate devices is about two coal-fired power plants.

Adjust the figures as you like but my basic point is: let’s not build more power plants, let’s fix router stability. And until we do, please, manually reset our routers or find another solution. To increase our power consumption by hundreds of megawatts for the people that sometimes need to reset their routers is foolish in these days of expensive energy, limited grid capacity, and let’s face it, global warming.

Thanks for reading.



Whitson, any reply?

by Jacob Corvidae

Lots of folks are touting a new study by The National Trust for Historic Preservation claiming that re-habbing existing buildings is far more green than building new energy efficient buildings — but it’s not at all clear this is accurate.

The study itself is an impressive effort, and I laud their rigorous attempt to dig into this question. But they might be wrong, even though reports are flying around talking about about why you need to rehab instead of build new energy efficient buildings.

My concern is three-fold:

  1. A study done at University of Michigan found the opposite result. This study compared the LCA (life cycle analysis) of new construction single family residences, one energy efficient and the not. This found that the ongoing energy use of the buildings outweighed the carbon impact of the materials used by at least 4 to 1, and that was only over a 50 year lifespan (the new study uses a 75 year span). The results clearly indicated that energy use mattered more than the material use for the LCA.
  2. The National Trust’s own study shows that in a variety of contexts (depending on building type and climate) 10-12 years is all it takes for the energy use of the building to “catch up” with the embodied energy of the materials. When a building’s anticipated lifespan is 50-75 years, then this confirms the University of Michigan study.
  3. Finally, the new study compares rehabbed buildings to new energy efficient buildings and assumes that the new buildings are a notable 30% more efficient. Depending on the age, type of building and climate, I think this number may be misleadingly low and therefore harms the conclusion of the study. Residential construction in Michigan, for example, had such horrible energy codes until 2008, that a new energy efficient home (especially one that’s built green with a low HERS or ENERGYSTAR index) could easily be 40% more efficient and possibly more.

The new results may be accurate, but there’s plenty of reasons to wait before claiming that new truly energy efficient construction is worse than rehab.

Btw, some disclaimers:

  1. I have a strong interest and dedication to rehabbing buildings and historic preservation in my personal life and career — which is all the more reason why I want to be clear where the benefits and trade-offs really are.
  2. despite being right by the University of Michigan, I have no connection to the authors or department which produced the report.

by Cecil Scheib

Why can’t a broader group of people be motivated to take personal action for more livable cities, more personally rewarding lifestyles, and reduced risk for environmental problems for their kids and grandkids? Why do only a small subset of the US population bother to take simple actions such as replacing light bulbs with CFLs, using reusable grocery bags, taking stairs instead of the elevator, eating less meat, carpooling/combining trips, or, for gosh sakes, turning off the lights and AC when leaving the house?

These are tough questions, but a common answer I’ve heard is: “Since people don’t think they can have an effect on such large problems, they are not motivated to try to have an impact”.

Maybe some folks say this and some don’t, but it leads me to consider an analogy with nationwide (or worldwide) economic issues such as national debts and widespread unemployment. You know, I can’t fix those things. I can’t get millions of people jobs, or pay off trillions in US government debt. There’s nothing I can do to help the economy. So I don’t bother trying to make money.

Of course, only a few people actually say this, but it still sort of cracks me up.

The difference here of course is in immediate effects vs long-term or indirect ones. Probably a better analogy would be the US personal savings rate, which is often practically zero if not negative – and is among the lowest in the world.

If Americans are so bad at looking toward the future – even when their own economic future is on the line – it’s not shocking that they can’t extrapolate from buying so much plastic packaging to the Pacific Gyre. But it also makes me wonder if the pat thesis that people are just overwhelmed by the scale of the problem truly has validity.

It also makes me wonder if there are better ways of motivating people.

by Jacob Corvidae

Our very own Cecil Scheib led the efforts that garnered a Clean Air award from the EPA for NYU.  Go Cecil, go!

NYU was one of only 12 recipients around the nation. Specifically note the co-gen project that he worked on which went operational this past winter. That project alone “mitigated an additional 23% of NYU’s baseline FY 2006 emissions and 68% of its baseline EPA criteria pollutants.”

You can see the full article at NYU’s website.


by Jacob Corvidae

This article, titled “White Privilege Diary Series #1, White Feminist Privilege in Organizations, about the failure of many organizations to tackle the real work of anti-racism raises a lot of questions. The author, Kali Tal, does an excellent job at defining a well thought out process and general facilitation method for moving groups through the work needed when a group professes to want to become more diverse.

Yet, as the author notes, it usually fails.

And she basically leaves it at that in frustation and anger at the people in power who don’t want to change their organizations.

The phenomenon Tal describes makes a lot of sense and she brings a clear sense of history and understanding of a lot of the nuances that can plague these attempts at diversification. I appreciate that she isn’t willing to hold any punches about how racism manifests, and the article does a great job of honing in on the key space where this manifests. I had a question or two about the way those dynamics were described, but this mostly struck me as likely pretty accurate.

Nonetheless, it also struck me as too quick to succumb to pessimism and a good vs. evil paradigm which is limiting for everyone. I’m not laying blame on Tal as the facilitator for not overcoming these issues. But lacking culpability doesn’t mean that an opportunity isn’t being missed.

If this pattern becomes so sure and replicable, and the author is one of the only one’s with the experience to see it, then why doesn’t she change her approach? It seems that there are ways to approach this situation, knowing the likely pitfalls, that might make it easier to avoid those pitfalls.

For example, what if the facilitators forewarned the participants about the likely need for deeper structural change before the long engagement with the board and members? What if they asked for specific commitments, perhaps related to cost, percentage of programming efforts, or some other measure to prepare for the needed changes ahead? This would serve a number of purposes:

  1. to test the seriousness of the interest in addressing the issue before walking the path;
  2. to create clear parameters and commitments ahead of time which should make it much easier to hold the white women in power to those commitments later (and not just “hold them” coercively but pre-set their own commitment so that confirmation bias and people’s innate desire to create a consistent self-image, a well documented motivator, kicks in to help the later parts of the meetings run smoother); and
  3. to create a clear playing field for the suggestions that come back from the people of color, so that the facilitators aren’t setting them
    up for failure from the beginning.

To carry people through a process with the expectation that the process is likely to fail not only undermines the process, but also sets up the entire group to be further discouraged and frustrated with the idea of positive change.

Again, I do not claim that the author is to blame for these circumstances. Nor that the institutions or people that she describes aren’t racist.  Certainly, many people will claim they want change until their power is actually threatened. And a power analysis is crucial to changing the dynamics that the author was brought in to help change. I do not lay sole responsibility on the author for changing this. But the author is the only window we have into this dynamic, and I would urge any party that I was talking to in this whole mess to look at what measures were in their sphere of control and influence and work from there, and I would urge each party to try to access their highest selves to determine their best course of action. As Tal is the only one we, the readers, are in dialogue with here, then I feel we must ask these thing questions of her. Not in condemnation, but in hope of finding solutions that help us all become unstuck.


by Jacob Corvidae

They may show that he’s been part of two very different “cities”, but we know it’s one love-able, worldchanging Cecil. This new article from Stanford about our very own lagomorph/skytalk author is really nicely written. But it still doesn’t give the magic resume skills that he must have to make that switch from rural ecovillage to NYC superstar.  Maybe his next career will be resume writing coach. But of course, as his own history shows, a combination of a dedicated life and fine-honed smarts will accomplish more than anything else.

Go Cecil!

by Jacob Corvidae

Most people have heard the idea that the Inuit (Eskimos) have a great more variety of words for snow than can be found in English. It turns out that this largely an urban legend. Nonetheless, there are certainly a wide variety of snow types. And as many of us in the Midwest are currently getting a big ol’ snowstorm, it seemed like a good time to look into some words to refine the conversation.

Here’s a list from of different words for snow.

And of course, wikipedia gives us some insights on different types of snow.

For a scientific look (and amazing photos like the one shown here) at the different varieties and structures of snow flakes, check out this great collection of info from Caltech. Though I remain curious about how these different flake structures affect what the overall snowfall effect is. For example, does one type of flake correspond with a soft clumpy snowfall while another corresponds with a light powder?

As for here in Detroit? I’d guess that last night we just had some flurries of needles, while today, we’ve got a snow storm of graupel. Ta da!

by Jacob Corvidae

Ever since NASA did their studies in the 80′s about the ability of houseplants to remove common toxins from the air (since you can’t open a window to ventilate the space shuttle), people have been promoting the use of plants for air purification. Well, to be fair, people have been promoting that idea for a LOT longer than that, but this time they had evidence: formaldehyde, benzene, trichloroethelyne, etc. all removed by the likes of English Ivy and Peace Lily’s. I’ve long recommended this as a low-cost approach to air purification in homes and offices.

But the EPA doesn’t agree.  Their official stance is one of skepticism, claiming that tests haven’t been done in ‘real world’ settings showing that sufficient amounts of toxins can be removed with a reasonable number of plants. But this isn’t true. Tests have been done to adress exactly this concern and found that the plants performed better than anticipated.

I’m in the process of contacting the appropriate people at the EPA, but have received no response over the past several weeks. I know they’re busy. Still, I’m frustrated with this stance. This low-cost, effective solution should not be cast into doubt by an agency like the EPA when evidence supports this technique. A disclaimer of uncertainty would be fine, while also being a strong improvement over their unnecessarily skeptic stance.

I’ve posted more links into the research as part of an advice post here.

by Cecil Scheib

For many years, those who wanted to track their home energy usage more carefully than just looking at their monthly utility bill (if they lived in a home powered by renewable energy, for example) have been measuring the energy use of individual appliances. In the old days this was done with a basic Kill-a-Watt or Watt’s Up (the latter is my personal choice, and more recent versions have come with a logger and USB port so you can download data and graphs to your computer).

Nowadays many more players are getting into the game. I’m field testing a fantastic product from ThinkEco (the “Modlet“) that you can plug up to two devices into and have it wirelessly transmit their energy use to your computer. Then, it will suggest schedules to automatically turn things on and off for energy savings, and easily let you compare your usage across periods. And Watt’s Up is working with Google PowerMeter to accomplish something similar.

These devices are now becoming mainstream. However, they remain bulky, inconvenient, and individualized in their application and use. Even if some day “smart houses” have individual meters on each outlet, it will not measure the load of individual devices on power strips.

A much better idea would be to standardize an interface for electric devices to report their own power use. By including it in the manufacturing process, it would be smaller and cheaper – and come by default. It would work just as well if you lived in a smart house as an old, dumb one. And consumers would not have to choose to shell out upfront costs – even though power meters do tend to pay themselves off quickly in savings.

Under this plan, every electric device would wirelessly report its make, model, and energy draw using a standard system that interfaced with easily available computer (or smartphone) software. A wired option might be available for those who don’t want more wireless waves in their home. Perhaps very low current draw or very small devices (like cell phone chargers) could be exempted – but with miniaturization that might not be necessary. Data transfer and device control would use a standard set of wireless, communication, and security protocols (like Zigbee et al) so that consumers don’t have to download a new piece of software or buy a new USB dongle just to use the new microwave.

So who should create and maintain this standard? There are many options – IEEE, ASHRAE, ISO, ANSI, IEC, CE, USDOE, USEPA, NREL, FCC – so pick an acronym. Manufacturer’s consortia are also an option. That said, one intriguing idea would be Underwriter’s Laboratories (UL). They already review just about every device that hits the US market and would be ideally situated in the marketplace.

Or we could just ask Google to do it.

by Cecil Scheib
Magical triangular solar panels!

Magical triangular solar panels!

Check out this article in the NYT about an energy self-sufficient sports stadium. While there may be things to admire about the project, a couple of greenwashing points:

1) There’s no way those turbines and the solar panels they show will put out the peak load of the stadium (think about how much stadium lighting draws). When they say “self-sufficient” in energy they mean they’ll put as much in the grid as they take out, overall. Not so hard for a stadium…which is unoccupied most of the time.

2) Major bogus architect greenwashing: check out the fictional triangular solar panels in the photo! You can’t cut a stock solar panel to get the shape you want; it actually needs a certain number of solar cells hooked up in series to produce the design panel voltage. While certain triangular solar panels do exist, they have fixed shapes and anemic lower voltages that won’t match this system. These ain’t gingerbread man cookies you can just bite the head off, folks.